Principals of BD


What is backwards design? 

Backwards design is a framework for designing a learning experience. This framework can be applied to anything from a short in class activity to an entire syllabus. No matter the scope or discipline, centering the learning goals and aligning instruction with learning activity and mode of assessment ensures that students are doing meaningful work in the classroom. These videos guide you through creating an assignment using backwards design, and cover key practices such as scaffolding, alignment and assessment. 

Backwards design begins with identifying the learning goals you want students to meet. Once you are clear on which learning goals you want students to meet, determine what you will accept as evidence of learning, and how you will evaluate that. In backward design, thinking about these issues first helps you chart the journey you want students to take. Finally, pick an assignment that is best going to get students to where you want them to be,  and one which you can both assess and support. 

Learning goals, or also known as learning outcomes, are a set of objectives that you will likely be provided by the department where you are teaching. There are tons of different types of goals and language for those goals so it is important to know your course learning goals and that they are included in the syllabus and the assignment guidelines. There are learning goals that are skill-based (such as writing, communication, information literacy, digital literacy etc) and others that are content-based (1900th century french literature). Some can be both! 

It is important that the tasks students are asked to do are aligned with the learning goals and the class instruction. Your assignment will set students up to do meaningful work instead of busywork. This fosters more engagement from students and sets them up to successfully complete their assignments.

So for example, consider an undergraduate general education course that requires students to demonstrate proficiency in information literacy. Information literacy can be broken down into a list of tasks of various levels of difficulty and specialized knowledge. In a 101 course, the goals can be constrained to 1) accessing information through an academic database, and 2) constructing a bibliography in proper MLA style citation. In this case, it is best to skip the more traditional research paper and design a scavenger hunt that asks students to retrieve and cite a list of materials from the university database. You can isolate the most important things you want students to practice and learn, and give them an accessible way to demonstrate that knowledge. An assignment like this can be adapted to many kinds of courses that may require students to do a research assignment.

When picking an assignment consider what your expectations of the student’ prior knowledge is. This is a loaded issue. On the one hand, community colleges and colleges in economically disadvantaged areas do indeed serve a diverse student body, many of whom are poor and working class, first generation, undocumented, and graduates from underresourced public high schools. The level of underpreparedness as measured in academic terms can be chronic and overwhelming. On the other hand, assumptions about underpreparedness can feed into deficit perspectives, and practices on black and brown students. Developing a pedagogy at CUNY means sometimes navigating those murky boundaries. 

 It can really help to do a diagnostic assessment. This can be a short poll to test for understanding and prior knowledge that is relevant to the course. Check out the workshop on using polls to incorporate them into your pedagogical toolkit.

Other strategies and resources that can help with assignment design and overall instruction include using college resources such as the library and writing center for additional support for your class. You can provide links to citation resources such as OWl perdue and son of citation machine to students. Don’t take your own student background for granted when guiding students to resources that might support them with their academic work or overall wellbeing.  

Finally use Bloom’s taxonomy as a framework to refine the language on your learning goals, write out assignment guidelines, and adopt . Using Bloom’s taxonomy can ensure that you are remaining consistent, intentional and transparent in your assignment design.